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Black HERstory Month: Octavia Butler, an unexpected queen of sci-fi

8:31 pm - 02/12/2013

Video link in case embed doesn't work.

Octavia E. Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. She studied at several universities and began her writing career in the 1970s. Her books blended elements of science fiction and African American spiritualism. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), led the five-volume Patternist series. Butler went on to write several other novels, including Kindred (1979), and Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1999), of the Parable series. She continued to write and publish until her death on February 24, 2006, in Seattle Washington.

Butler thrived in a genre typically dominated by white males. She lost her father at a young age and was raised by her mother. To support the family, her mother worked as a maid.

As a child, Octavia E. Butler was known for her shyness and her impressive height. She was dyslexic, but she didn't let this challenge deter her from developing a love of books. Butler started creating her own stories early on, and she decided to make writing her life's work around the age of 10. She later earned an associate degree from Pasadena City College. Butler also studied her craft with Harlan Ellison at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop.

To make ends meet, Butler took all sorts of jobs while maintaining a strict writing schedule. She was known to work for several hours very early in the morning each day. In 1976, Butler published her first novel, Patternmaster. This book was the first in a series of works about a group of people with telepathic powers called Patternists. Other Patternist titles include Mind of My Mind (1977) and Clay's Ark (1984).

In 1979, Butler had a career breakthrough with Kindred. The novel tells the story of a African American woman who travels back in time to save a white slave owner—her own ancestor. In part, Butler drew some inspiration from her mother's work. "I didn't like seeing her go through back doors," she once said, according to The New York Times. "If my mother hadn't put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure."

For some writers, science fiction serves as means to delve into fantasy. But for Butler, it largely served as a vehicle to address issues facing humanity.
It was this passionate interest in the human experience that imbued her work with a certain depth and complexity. In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive critical recognition for her work. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for the best short story of the year, for "Speech Sounds." That same year, the novelette "Bloodchild" won a Nebula Award and later a Hugo.

In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race.

To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy. She went on to write the Parable series, which includes the novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1999).

In 1995, Butler received a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which allowed her to buy a house for her mother and herself.

In 1999, Butler abandoned her native California to move north to Seattle, Washington. She was a perfectionist with her work and spent several years grappling with writer's block. Her efforts were hampered by her ill health and the medications she took. After starting and discarding numerous projects, Butler wrote her last novel Fledgling (2005).

On February 24, 2006, Octavia E. Butler died at her Seattle home. She was 58 years old. With her death, the literary world lost one of its great storytellers. She is remembered, as Gregory Hampton wrote in Callaloo, as writer of "stories that blurred the lines of distinction between reality and fantasy." And through her work, "she revealed universal truths."

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She was an absolutely fantastic author and woman.

For those who have read her work and are interested in work similar to hers, her friend Tananarive Due is an excellent Black horror/sci-fi author that I really enjoy.
rkt 13th-Feb-2013 04:19 am (UTC)
butler is my most favorite author of all times forever.
romp 13th-Feb-2013 04:22 am (UTC)
I recommend her because I've never heard of anyone who doesn't like her. I've only read Parable of the Sower but it was powerful, more real and powerful than I like my fiction, left me feeling tender. Frankly, she's too literary for me. I'm not even sure how SF she is compared to Margaret Atwood.

I've wondered if Nnedi Okorafor considered Butler a forerunner and a quick google shows me that Okorafor wrote a tribute in Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. I hadn't heard of Due, OP--thank you--but I see she's mentioned repeatedly in the book.

Edited at 2013-02-13 04:23 am (UTC)
moonshaz 13th-Feb-2013 06:39 am (UTC)
Looking at reviews of some of her books on Amazon, they sound as if they might be too intense for me tbqh. May take a look, but not sure if it will go beyond that.
skellington1 13th-Feb-2013 09:17 pm (UTC)
I know it's impossible to judge for others, but I self-select to make sure I don't get books that are too intense -- especially too intensely depressing -- and I found the Patternist books to be okay in that regard, as long as I didn't read them all at once. It isn't escapism, for sure, but they're also not long, so it's a dealable dose.

Her Xenogensis books are fascinating, and do a better job of showing truly *alien* aliens than most sci-fi I can think of. I imagine for some people they'd be intensely uncomfortable just because they're so intensely different (which is what makes good aliens!), but they're intense in a different way than the Patternist ones.
influencethis 13th-Feb-2013 11:04 pm (UTC)
I love her work, but the Wild Seed spurred my first real suicidal spiral. I'd take it very slow with reading.
pachakuti 14th-Feb-2013 04:38 pm (UTC)
Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents are very very seriously intense books. They also force you to really think. The main plotline involves our main chracter living in a note-quite-apocalyptic, degraded American society... and she starts a kind of atheistic religion of humanism. And it only gets darker after that.

Her characters, though, are very human. And there's an interesting thread through the story of how you really cannot simply turn around the choices you've made, and how good people often make the wrong ones, and spend the rest o their lives digging holes of denial to convince themselves they were right.
maladaptive 13th-Feb-2013 01:29 pm (UTC)
The Xenogenesis books are as SF as SF gets.
romp 13th-Feb-2013 05:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I didn't mean to question her SF cred at all, just to question why she had to be seen as less literary than Atwood when they both have tackled social issues with speculative fiction, etc. But, as I said elsewhere, she doesn't need me to rescue her from the SF ghetto.
maladaptive 13th-Feb-2013 05:38 pm (UTC)
I misread your comment then! I just know there's a lot of kerfluffle over Atwood and SF (she's pretty adamant that she doesn't write SF), I was just pointing out that a lot of Butler's stuff can't even waffle with the "literary" line like Atwood does.

And tbh Butler was definitely not ashamed of being an SF writer like Atwood appears to be.
jettakd 13th-Feb-2013 05:40 pm (UTC)
The fact that SF gets such a bad rap is ridiculous and I don't really understand it. No one should be ashamed of their genre, unless perhaps they are one of those "fill in the blanks" authors of like flat-fee Harlequin books.
maladaptive 13th-Feb-2013 05:55 pm (UTC)
I gotta respect romance writers-- they make bank. I know a few "respectable" writers who are self-supporting off erotica/romance rather than their real work. Which, as a SFF writer, is depressing. Except we get paid better than "real" writers for a lot of work, especially short fiction. So literary folks may think we write crap but at least we get $.05/word for our crap!

More seriously: I find that spec fic tackles meaty problems better than a lot of mainstream lit, and puts it into the hands of demographics that may not otherwise see it. Folks wanting sword and sorcery may read a book about race where, if they stuck with literature, those books would be off in the "black literature" section only for people who seek it out. Whereas you pick up a short story collection of SF and you could get the stories of all sorts of demographics and perspectives. I also find SFF waaaay friendlier to, say, LGBT subjects. Again because it's all SFF and not broken into focus groups.

On top of space adventure and dragons, of course.

But "genre" is cheap and not real literature because it doesn't talk about real things. Of course I'm extra bitter today because I saw a call on The Grinder for "all commercial adult fiction except self help and women's fiction" and I blew up about wtf is women's fiction!? I know what it is: fiction with girl cooties on it, but auuuugh /derail
jettakd 13th-Feb-2013 05:59 pm (UTC)
No, I mean I totally respect writers who write original romance! Even if it's cliche and formulaic. I meant--well one of my old English professors paid her way through college on writing Harlequin novels, and she said that they send you a template and you basically just change the names, locations, and hair colors and they publish it. That's what I meant. But yeah I understand doing it to pay the bills.

And seriously. For all its issues, I've learned a lot more about social issues from genre fic than literature. And it's more fun to read too!

And ew at that show. Are they talking about "chick lit?" or something, I guess. Like Bridget Jones or Gossip Girl?
maladaptive 13th-Feb-2013 06:06 pm (UTC)
"Women's lit" covers a huge range-- it can go from Eat, Pray, Love, to Bridget Jones, to Steel Magnolias. Basically if it's marketed at women, it's women's fiction. So it contains chick lit and a bunch of other topics. Given that women read more than men it seems like marketing to them is a smarter choice, but no, women get "women's fiction" and men get "fiction."

It's not a show, though. The Grinder is just a website that collects magazines/collections/publishers to submit to. Also really cool if you want to find new magazines, since a lot publish content online. I read looots of short fiction these days.

Gossip Girl is YA, which definitely has the girl section but it's bigger and less maligned than adult women's lit because the split in readership is even more pronounced among boys and girls.
thepuddingcook 14th-Feb-2013 11:37 pm (UTC)
SF ghetto? Really?
romp 15th-Feb-2013 12:31 am (UTC)

Please be more specific. Do you see it as an insensitive Holocaust reference? Do you associate the term with black communities? Do you think the term should be abandoned or updated?
thepuddingcook 15th-Feb-2013 01:16 am (UTC)
I can't read your link but...all of the above? Good lord. I did not even know that term existed. As someone who has been told over and over again by creative writing profs that I should abandon all notions of writing "genre fiction" (e.g. science fiction), I guess I was put into a "ghetto" if you want to put it that way (*shudder*)--but it was wrong and I don't think we should fear calling writers what they are--Octavia Butler was a marvelous sci fi writer, and Margaret Atwood is also a marvelous Sci-Fi writer. When she wrote in her book "In Other Worlds" that she did not consider herself to be writing sci-fi (after going on and on about the genre and---my goodness, if you ever read Oryx and Crake that's about as sci-fi as it gets), I felt betrayed. That doesn't mean they are not "literary"---I guess I have never understood why "literary" doesn't have room for sci-fi and fantasy. Like Neil Gaiman has said before, the original stories told by our ancestors were probably "fantasy" stories--they are the flights of imagination that human beings have gone on since they were able to put thoughts together.

romp 15th-Feb-2013 01:31 am (UTC)
For what it's worth, I think everyone here agrees with you. Genre fiction is looked down as less prestigious, less literacy. And I agree that much of that is a cultural fluke. If you write ANOTHER story about an east coast English prof sleeping with a student while his marriage crumbles, it's literary but if you write something more exciting or that I might actually care about...

IDK, I think there are a number of biases at play--straight, monied white men are serious business--but I simply lack the patience for that level of self-importance.
girly123 13th-Feb-2013 03:29 pm (UTC)
I'd say she's decidedly more sci-fi than Margaret Atwood.

ETA: Granted, I've only ever read Oryx and Crake of Margaret Atwood's (which was more speculative fiction than anything, I think,) and Lilith's Brood of Octavia Butler's, so my perception is a little skewed in that respect.

Edited at 2013-02-13 03:37 pm (UTC)
romp 13th-Feb-2013 04:37 pm (UTC)
No, you're right. I was attempting to say that I don't know that Butler is less literary, I think. Which is probably wanting to rescue her from the SF ghetto. :/
girly123 13th-Feb-2013 05:50 pm (UTC)
Oh! I can see that.
I guess I just fervently defend sci-fi because it always struck me as kind of bullshit that it's stuck in a ghetto in the first place, you know? Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Dune and 2001: a Space Oddyssey (to name the ones that immediately come to mind,) are all incredibly literary works, and it seems wrong to deny them their place in literary canon because they involve cyberpunk dystopias and aliens.

Edited at 2013-02-13 05:50 pm (UTC)
thepuddingcook 15th-Feb-2013 01:17 am (UTC)
What I wanted to say, minus all the incoherent feels :-)
astridmyrna 13th-Feb-2013 04:43 am (UTC)
*adds to reading list*
wikilobbying 13th-Feb-2013 06:16 am (UTC)
same, and i've been dying for good sci-fi recs so this is right up my alley
crossfire 13th-Feb-2013 04:45 am (UTC)
IMO Octavia Butler is must-read for any sci-fi fan. Clay's Ark is genius and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" is sublime.
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 04:49 am (UTC)
Die-hard Octavia Butler fan here.

Here are some reasons why you should read her:
--If you like John Jude Palencar's art, he did a series of book covers for her in 1997
--Black women protagonists who survive
--The issues she addresses are as searingly relevant now as they were then (read Parable of the Talents if you want to freak yourself out in an election year)
--YMMV, but I think her work lets you figure things (morals, who to root for, to feel bad or not about events) on your own; she doesn't preach to you
--She made m-preg legit lit ("Bloodchild.")
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 04:52 am (UTC)
What's your favorite work of hers?
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 05:04 am (UTC)
Despite that she's known for her novels, I'm really fond of "Bloodchild" and "The Book of Martha". I think there's something about having her themes and prose compressed to short story size that's really potent (Bloodchild) or lovely (Book).

Although of the novels, I really like Kindred with Dana as narrator. (Which is a bit ironic since I always bemoan that that's the book taught in classes because of course sci-fi isn't academic enough) Still have to read "Amnesty" and finish the last two books of Xenogensis and Patternmaster though!
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 05:18 am (UTC)
OMG, you are like my Butler reading twin. This never happens!

I love, love, love her short stories and wish she'd written more of them (even though she hated writing them). "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" and "Speech Sounds" are masterpieces in my opinion. "Bloodchild" is good too. I liked "Kindred" the best of the novels. It was the first thing I ever read by her. The Patternist/Patternmaster/Seed to Harvest series is my favorite series though.
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 05:28 am (UTC)
Lol, well, not quite. XD

Out of the short stories in Bloodchild, "Bloodchild" was pretty much the only one I liked. "The Evening..." went right over my head... >.> *Googles* ...Oh wait, I think I'm getting my stories mixed up. Which one is Evening?

I think the idea behind "Speech Sounds" is excellent, but it didn't have the same social punch the rest of her work does (I think that's part of my problem with her short stories). So I'm a bit baffled by its Hugo. But that's also because I never read her work in chronological order.

Kindred is the first one I read too! My sole reason for continuing in Seed to Harvest is to see Doro get his, because I loathed him so much in Wild Seed, lol. Also, because the whole series is all jumbled up chronologically, and I think ending with her first published book should make for an interesting reading experience!
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 05:37 am (UTC)
I liked Bloodchild, but TE&TM&TN is my favorite in that collection.

I like Tor's description of the story: “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is about people with a genetic disease that’s caused by a cancer cure, and it’s really about how your genes shape people’s lives and choices. Butler’s voice here and the speed at which she feeds you information about what the disease is and how it works is chilling and astonishing." Linky: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/09/out-of-control-octavia-butlers-bloodchild-and-other-stories

I liked SS. I like shorts over novels though. Give me a short story collection and I will sit down and read them all as quickly as possible.

I hated Doro, but I loved his ability to transfer to another body on a whim, if his current body was failing in some way. I found that idea intriguing on so many levels. Wild Seed is disturbing on a lot of levels.

The Parable series was my second favorite series.

I loathed Fledgling though.
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 05:46 am (UTC)
Ooh, thanks! A re-reading is probably warranted. :)

Mostly I hated Doro's notion that he could civilize Anwanyu if only he could get her pregnant. Like, uh, no dude, not cool.

Lol, I have many Feels about Parable since I wrote my thesis on Talents. I have a large fascination with Asha Vere and how she's such a hater, and yet here she is writing this book.

AHAHAHA, you are not the first person to tell me that about Fledgling. Apparently (or so I hear), Butler died before finish-finishing it? It was the second book of hers I read because I heard there was pearl-clutching over underage vampire sex. I think the character relationship building in terms of freewill/coercion is great, but the plot is the weakest of her novels.
maladaptive 13th-Feb-2013 05:44 pm (UTC)

Kind of like Joanna Russ's "When it Changed" for having a creeping horror that wasn't in the actual premise that just sticks with you. That enforced helplessness. I think those two were the most instrumental stories to me on the nature of despair/resignation.
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 04:52 am (UTC)
Octavia Butler is my all time favorite author. Discovering her work was very important to me.

I'd recommend Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson if you like Octavia Butler.
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 05:05 am (UTC)
Out of curiosity, what about Okorafor and Hopkinson reminds you of Butler? I always have a hard time with telling people "If you like Octavia Butler, check out..."
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 05:12 am (UTC)
There is something in how they both set up social issues in their science fiction that remind me of Butler. I remember first reading a Hopkinson story and thinking that it reminded me of an extension of Butler in style, even though the subject matter differed. I love Due, but I think she swings closer to pure horror and her comparison for me would be Stephen King, but without the unnecessary lengthy wordage. I also wouldn't compare author N.K. Jemisin to Butler as her work tends to rely a little more on fantasy/high fantasy than Butler's.

Butler skirted that line of fantasy/dark fantasy, but it usually fell into social science fiction more than anything and I think Okorafor and Hopkinson can/do that deftly.
skellington1 13th-Feb-2013 09:31 pm (UTC)
I also wouldn't compare author N.K. Jemisin to Butler as her work tends to rely a little more on fantasy/high fantasy than Butler's.

Jumping in to say I *just* finished the first book I've ever read by Jemisin (like, finished two hours ago) and I LOVED it, so it was fun to see the author's name so soon.

I agree that I wouldn't leap straight to comparing her with Butler, though. It's more than just the big difference in setting, though I can't put my finger on what -- I'd want to read more of Jemisin and have read Butler more recently to be able to define it.
trivalent 13th-Feb-2013 03:49 pm (UTC)
I've actually gotten to meet Nnedi Okorafor and hear her speak!!! She is such an amazing woman and writer, and I only discovered Octavia Butler after she died (woah sad), but I loved both books of hers I have read (Fledgling and Wild Seed).
ms_mmelissa 13th-Feb-2013 05:29 am (UTC)
I recently picked up Kindred after hearing for years how great Octavia Butler is.

She was even better than advertised.

Thanks for the lovely other authorial suggestion op!

And FYI there's a book of sci-fi stories that's been put out that helps pay for Clarion workshop scholarships for writers of colour in Octavia Butler's name. You can read more/contribute here:

tabaqui 13th-Feb-2013 01:01 pm (UTC)
Wow, i had no idea she had died so young. An impressive woman.
mutive 13th-Feb-2013 01:15 pm (UTC)
Yay, Octavia Butler. I love her stories. (And thank you for writing so many of these. I've been lurking and enjoying.) Also, will have to check out Tananarive Due. Thanks for the recommendation.
girly123 13th-Feb-2013 03:33 pm (UTC)
Octavia Butler is such an inspiration. Just knowing that she was out there and made it as a black, female sci-fi author is enormously encouraging to me and so many other people like me. It's a shame that she was taken from us so early, but her legacy is so powerful that she will continue to make a difference despite having passed.
thecityofdis 13th-Feb-2013 03:55 pm (UTC)
omg a whole post on _p dedicated to octavia butler

this makes me so happy

i fell in love with her in high school and never looked back
salamanderrrr 13th-Feb-2013 06:00 pm (UTC)
LOVE HER, her books will blow your mind :):)
thanks for the other recommendation
pachakuti 14th-Feb-2013 04:42 pm (UTC)
I picked up Parable of the Sower/Talents when I was about fourteen years old. That shit blew my goddamn mind, and continues to do so every time I read it. I had never read sci-fi like that before. It's much of what I seek out, now; and of course, being young and super into sci-fi I bought bsaically anything written by a female author that ALSO had a female main character.

Butler wrote black women who live. This is something you so rarely see in sci-fi that Butler's work actually stands out glaringly. Her protagonists are invariably black, another huge rarity in sci-fi.

The darkness of the Parable books was incredible, pretty searingly intense. The morals, if you can call them that, were things I wasn't used to seeing written in such a practical, realistic way; that you can't change a choice once it's made, that sometimes choices are made for you and their consequences are no less concrete, that sometimes we tell ourselves over and over we did the right thing so that we may pretend what we did was not wrong.

Her characters are also so believably human. It's less reading and more experiencing someone else's life. Taking my eyes off the books sometimes feels like tearing open a wound.

pachakuti 14th-Feb-2013 04:43 pm (UTC)
Okay, that end bit is a little hyperbolic, but still reads very true. Her books are books I can't put down until they're done, and not because I'm fascinated... it's because I am physically unable to stop reading until it's done.

I just love her work so much. RIP, Octavia.
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